A day with Bertrand “Dr Birdy” Jno Baptiste

Dominica’s best-known birdwatcher can spot a plumbeous warbler or a rufous-throated solitaire a mile off

Dr Birdy. Photograph by Paul CraskThe diminutive Antillean crested hummingbird is endemic to the region. Photograph by Paul CraskThe Lesser Antillean pewee, a favourite with visiting birders. Photograph by Paul CraskThe purple-throated Carib is one of four hummingbird species observed in Dominica. Photograph by Celia Sorhaindo

Bertrand Jno Baptiste, affectionately known as Dr Birdy (it’s plastered across the windscreen of his car, in case there are doubters), is Dominica’s best-known bird expert, which is why I had decided to take a trip with him. As a travel writer I come across the names of numerous bird species, and when I am hiking, I hear and see plenty of them. My problem is connecting the names with their owners. So, with Dr Birdy, I set off for the rainforest-covered foothills of Dominica’s Morne Diablotin National Park, the habitat of the rare, endemic sisserou parrot.

Dr Birdy is certainly no run-of-the-mill ornithologist. He brims with unbridled enthusiasm for his subject, and his ebullient character is completely infectious. He is one of those people you like instantly.

“I got into it in 1988,” says Baptiste, “when I started working at the Forestry Division. I was studying parrots at the time. I remember going to St Vincent to see their parrot and when I heard it call, there was a moment when I was convinced it sounded just like Dominica’s jaco parrot. I kept my observation to myself, because I was a beginner. A little while later, though, it was confirmed by an international expert that most of the Amazonian parrots of the Antilles are in some way related. That news made me smile.”

Today Baptiste still works at Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division, but in his free time he takes people on birdwatching expeditions. He’s been doing this for several years now, and enthusiasts from all over the world look him up when they come to Dominica. He has collaborated in writing several books about the island’s birds, and has even been involved in observing and tracking notorious parrot smugglers. He spends a lot of time in the forests of Dominica’s national parks and seems to have an intimate knowledge of every bush, flower, and tree. He shares a trait I have often noticed in forestry officers here: their work is more than just a job, and they love what they do.

“Look, a kingbird.” He points through the windscreen to a small dot on the end of a branch. “And Lesser Antillean swifts.” We pull over at a tranquil spot close to a river. Tall gommier trees stand majestically between forest plants and flowers such as anthurium and morning glory.

“I saw a blue-headed hummingbird here the other day and some plumbeous warblers in the bushes over there. Birders love to see them. I can already hear a forest thrush, and a pearly-eyed thrasher just called and landed in that tree over there.”

My head is beginning to spin already. I just see trees.

Baptiste takes his binoculars and large scope from the car and we walk a short distance along a track. He stops. “See this?”

I look at the ground but see nothing.

“Gommier seeds,” he says. “All over the place. And look, another one just fell. There’s a jaco parrot in the canopy above our heads, feeding on the seeds.”

I can see nothing but leaves.

“I see it,” he says. “Actually, there are two.”

While I stare hopefully at the dark foliage, Baptiste sets up his scope. “Here, come see,” he grins.

I look. Two jaco parrots fill the viewfinder. Astonished, I grin back at him like a small boy at Christmas. I look up at the canopy again, but still cannot see them. Yet there they are in the scope, big, bright and beautiful, oblivious to us.

Further along the track, Baptiste notices something in the bush. “Plumbeous warbler,” he says. “Let’s see if he comes out.” And with this, he puts his hand to his mouth and starts making birdcalls. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as a tiny warbler edges a little closer, and all the other birds in the neighbourhood seem to join in the conversation with him. “This one is little old and wise,” says Baptiste, shrugging. “The fledglings sometimes land right on my hand.”

Within the next 20 minutes Baptiste shows me a scaly-breasted thrasher, a pearly-eyed thrasher, an Antillean crested hummingbird, and a pair of Lesser Antillean pewees. It’s as if I had an extra dimension added to my senses, and my head turns back and forth as if I were watching a fast-paced tennis match.

We hike further into the forest and reach a clearing where we can see across a wide river gorge to the canopy-covered slopes of Morne Turner. As soon as we arrive, we hear the unmistakable call of Dominica’s mountain whistler. Known properly as the rufous-throated solitaire, this bird accompanies hikers throughout Dominica’s interior. Baptiste calls to it and within a couple of minutes it appears and rests on a long branch overhanging the gorge. Through Baptiste’s scope I see the full detail of its plumage: its rusty throat feathers, little white beard, pinky-red eyes, and a full breast as it belts out a song.

Baptiste laughs at my excitement. “I love it when people describe what they see. It tells me they are really seeing it, you know?” He is interrupted by another call. “Hear that? A sisserou. Somewhere way over in the far canopy.” He scans the distant trees for Dominica’s national bird but is unable to locate it. And then it rains.

As soon as the rain stops, jaco parrots take flight across the river gorge, flying in pairs and with a distinctive squawk. Their bright yellow tail feathers glimmer like gold in the late-afternoon sunshine. As we stroll back along the track, they take to the air all around us. I am mesmerised.

“Red-legged thrush,” says Baptiste. “On the path. See it?”

I don’t. He hands me his binoculars and I spot the bird in the distance, foraging for insects. “How on earth did you see that?” I ask, dumbfounded.

Baptiste giggles. “I have good eyes. Look, a ramier pigeon joined it, you see?”

We say our goodbyes and I hear Baptiste talking and laughing in my head for hours afterwards. He is great company and his enthusiasm for birds is very infectious.

Now, as I sit at my laptop writing about our short trip, I listen to the birds singing outside my window and wonder what they are. I get up and look for them. Perhaps I need another lesson.

Bertrand Jno Baptiste can be contacted by e-mail at: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm